Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): Symptoms and treatment

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What is RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus around the world and usually causes a mild illness with cold-like symptoms. RSV follows an annual seasonal pattern. In Canada, a wave of increased activity (an epidemic) usually occurs from the fall to the early spring.

By the age of 2, most children will have experienced an RSV infection. For infants and young children, RSV infection is a common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in infants and young children, which causes inflammation and congestion in the small airways of the lung.

Although RSV typically causes mild illness, RSV infection can be more serious. This sometimes requires hospitalization, and more rarely, admission to the intensive care unit.

People who are once infected with RSV can get repeat infections, and individuals of any age can be infected. Reinfection with RSV is usually less severe in older children and adults.

RSV can be an important cause of morbidity and mortality in infants, young children and the elderly.

Symptoms of RSV

Symptoms often begin 2 to 8 days after exposure to RSV. Symptoms may include:

In infants, symptoms may include irritability, difficulty breathing, decreased appetite/feeding and decreased activity.

RSV sometimes presents as a severe infection of the lower respiratory tract, which can only be managed in the hospital. Infants frequently have bronchiolitis, which presents as wheezing and increased work of breathing.

Some people, especially infants, older adults (65 years of age or older) and immunocompromised individuals, are at a higher risk for developing more severe illness from RSV.

If you become ill

If you or your child have symptoms of RSV, even if mild, limit close contact with other people until symptoms have resolved. An example of limited contact would be to only have one caregiver for your sick child, if possible.

It's especially important to limit contact with people who are at risk of more severe RSV infection.

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Diagnosing RSV

Your health care provider may suspect RSV based on your or your child's symptoms. People admitted to hospital may have a nose swab done to confirm the diagnosis.

Treating RSV

Usually, RSV infections are mild and clear up on their own in 1 to 2 weeks. There is currently no vaccine to prevent RSV, but several are under development.

If you or your child are infected, drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest. You can use over-the-counter products such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage fever and pain.

If your child has symptoms, talk to their health care provider and give them medications as directed.

In severe cases, a person who is having trouble breathing or becomes dehydrated may need to be admitted to the hospital. They may need additional oxygen and care. If you or your child is having difficulty breathing or is dehydrated, seek immediate medical care.

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